Google Reader Backlash: A Fuss Over Nothing?

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Reader's vibrant sharing communities are a casualty of the effort to inject some life into Google+

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It's a routine so played out it's practically protocol: A website announces changes (or, in some cases, just makes the changes without warning), users and readers hem and haw about everything they dislike about the "upgrade" and, eventually, they get used to it and it's all water under the bridge. This has happened many times with social-networking sites, such as Facebook, and media sites such as The Washington Post. Any designer who wants to improve a site must steel him- or herself against the inevitable criticism, knowing that the people who currently visit a site are those that like it the way it is, and may reject any proposed changes, regardless of increased function and appeal.

When Google Reader first announced the coming changes over a week ago, this was the basic plot I expected: users would complain, the changes would roll out as planned, people would grumble, but over time they would get used to it. The reason I expected this was because I believed that Google would not make Reader worse. I believed Google would improve Reader, and that any lingering complaints would be from people who just couldn't adjust.

Now that the changes have appeared (a few days later than expected), and I've taken some time to explore the new Google Reader, I'm doubting that original position. In a few ways, mostly aesthetic, Google Reader does seem better: it's cleaner, brighter, and has an easy-to-use one-click subscribe button. For people who solely use the service to read RSS feeds, the redesign seems like a net-gain, the only real problem being that it is running very slowly (a common complaint), but that is something Google will presumably (hopefully) fix in the coming days. 

If you take some time to read reactions to the upgrade on Google+, Twitter, and Google Reader help boards, you will see lots of people who do not like the new look. It's too bright, the bar at the top is too big, hyperlinks are hard to see. I think many of these people will soon adjust to what are more or less cosmetic changes.

But for people who used Google Reader's sharing features, the upgrade is a big loss, for all intents and purposes ruining that aspect of Reader. The old sharing methods have been totally supplanted with Google+ tools, which, quality aside, are too different to satisfy the same needs. I'm going to dive into the nitty-gritty here, so consider yourself warned.

Let's begin with the problems of how to share, before moving on to the larger problems of how you read and discuss.

In place of the old sharing buttons are two Google+ tie-ins, both of which are poorly designed. The first, which appears at the bottom of each post, is the now-familiar +1 button. Clicking on this does not send the article to your stream. Rather the article will now appear on the +1 page of your profile, kind of like the Favorites page of a Twitter profile. That's fine. If you want to share this piece and +1 it, you'll have to go click share on the box that pops up. That's also fine, but it's not intuitive to have to first click on +1, which does something different but it's unclear what that is (unless, like me, you call someone to do an experiment to ask them to tell you whether they can see anything on your profile or in Google Reader after you click that button). This should not be so hard.

Now, say you want to share something but you don't want to +1 it. At first this doesn't seem possible, but it is, it's just not obvious. To do so, you have to click not on the item that you want to share, but on the share button that lives in the Google tool bar at the top of every Google app page. That button doesn't share Reader, as it might seem were it to apply to the entire page you're looking at, but only to the item you have open. Why did Google not put a share button in each post's display?

If that were all that was wrong with the redesign, I could get over it. The location of buttons, while annoying, does not ruin Google Reader's sharing utility.

What does is having to read everything on Google+. First, it takes the experience out of Reader completely, making reading RSS feeds and reading your friends' gleanings from their RSS feeds two different activities. Second, it means that no longer can you read your friends' finds without also reading the other stuff they've posted on Google+. Right now, the circle I created on Google+ for reader friends is full of other stuff: personal news, offers to go to sporting events, and people's photos. I'm happy to see that stuff in Google+ or Facebook, but not when what I'm doing is reading the news. For Twitter I have lists of real-life friends and news sources, but on Google+ with many of my friends sharing both news and personal content, I cannot get the two in separate places.

Finally, the worst part of reading shared items in Google+ is the stream. In Google Reader, you could easily come back to a post when a new comment appeared, or even put of reading certain streams until the weekend or until you left work. Now, once an item moves down the stream, the only way to get back to it is to scroll down. This will be the end of the Google Reader conversations that were the heart of Google Reader sharing.

There could have been simple ways to avoid many of these problems. Give items that come in from Google Reader their own page on Google+. Organize that page in a way that resembles the old Reader shared section. Link directly to that page from Google Reader. Put a share button without +1 in each post. But without those or other changes, Reader will exist in this hobbled, less dynamic state. 

A Google Reader/Google+ integration is not inherently a bad thing. I like and use both services and I have thought for a while that each could be improved by linking it with the other. But on the details, this integration is a let-down. Ultimately, what it shows, is that Google was willing to kill off Reader's sharing communities to save Google+. It's easy to see why Google would make that choice, but that doesn't lessen the disappointment and anger of those who just lost their favorite place on the web.

Image: Google.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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